Malaysiakini Letter

Khat - what's the big fuss?

Tan Ai Mei

LETTER | The fuss is not about learning Jawi writing. The central issue is that education has opened the gateway for politicians, religious political parties including the ulama and the so-called Malay nationalists to advance their political and religious agenda, my dearest friends.

Secondly, the inclusion of Jawi writing called khat in SJK curriculum is against the basic principle of professionalism in education, i.e. schools must be safeguarded from the intrusion and influence of politics and religion. Look at the coercion, invading and threatening reaction taken by the 90 Malay and Islamic NGOs in the social media, including PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang and individual ulama. How can their behaviour command the confidence of the minority Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and aborigine communities to accept such "civilised" education?

Thirdly, our education curriculum has become a platform, since the first Mahathir era, to infiltrate the national ideology in the name of so-called "patriotism", i.e. namely the supremacy of one race, one religion and one language. This "visionary" government has to be in some way accountable for leaving out the broader perspective of truth in the education of the history of human civilisation, religious and cultural influences in the region and in particular in this country, Hindu influences on the royal rituals and everyday practices in our lives. Others include the incomplete reporting on May 13 incident and the contribution of the various ethnics that make up this country. This has to a certain extent considerably "colonised" the Malays with the supremacy ideology and blinded them from the truth that the true competitiveness of a people or a race is linked to the command of a strong psychological construct to manage life, challenges and survival.

Fourthly, the Malaysian education curriculum has become a platform for cabinet ministers to impose whatever ideas come to mind while bypassing professional review for an integrated and holistic curriculum. Is it thus not beyond prediction that the inclusion of Jawi writing/khat in the SJK Malay language curriculum commencing in Standard 4 (in 2020) to Standard 6 in 2012 is to be followed by implementation at the secondary school level has its political claim on the national ideology? The basic argument lies not in the appreciation of the civilisation and rise of the glory of Malay and Islamic culture. Rather, it is seen as the advancement of the supremacy of one race, one culture and one language in the country that defies the spirit of Malaysian constitution and Rukun Negara to affirm the respect and sustainability of the multi-ethnic society that makes up this country.

Fifth, it is claimed that Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, is the medium for national unity. Has it produced the desired effect? Or rather, it is a means to reinforce their control by homogenising Malaysians, especially the Malays, to a conforming lot, safeguarding the ideology of "one country, one policy" despite the national language ideology having a strong bearing on the "worrying" deterioration in our country's education standards ("merisaukan" as decried be by the progressive group of Malays) in Maths, Science, and English as revealed by the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and Trends of Survey in Maths and Science (Timss) at the world level .

According to a World Bank economist, "… poor quality of Malaysia’s education system is more worrying than the level of debt in its households". This is because "the substandard education system" would affect the pool of skilled talents to grow its economy. He said that Malaysia should feel alarmed that the Malaysian children are performing poorer than Vietnam’s. Such analysis finds its truth in the statistics. In the 2013 Pisa assessment, Vietnam was ranked 10th while Malaysia was ranked 52nd out of 72 participating countries. And the performance of our 15-year-old students in Maths and Science is lagging three years behind Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong as revealed in the 2010 Timms survey.

Can we proclaim the national language ideology of Bahasa Melayu to restore the pride of the people – the Malays and all Malaysians? How has the emphasis on the Malay language helped unite the Malays and all Malaysians across ethnics? Seventy percent of the younger generation of Chinese ethnics including those from the UEC system, do not have problems in their command and use of the language. This is clearly proven in the performance of school teachers and specifically representative members in the Parliament and the state legislative assemblies.

Instead of reaffirming the status of the Malay language as a unifying language and sincerely helping SJK pupils to enjoy the beauty and fun of learning the Malay language while helping upgrade the pedagogic command of teachers in teaching the language, the content syllabus or buku teks produced by Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka (DBP) for SJK students is getting tougher and tougher with regards to being the first language to be taught in the schools. The learning content has gone beyond the social and cognitive development of the learning experience of the primary school kids while the UPSR exam standard is made more difficult as years go by for students in SJK as well as in SK and in SPM.

And now, the Education Ministry is imposing another element to be included in the school curriculum, namely the classic component of the language, that it claims has been done since 2014. To me, it is fine and relevant, in both the education and national interest sense, to introduce a chapter on the relevance of Jawi to our country or the national language, including championing Zaba as "Bapa Bahasa Moden" and the peak of the glory charted in Islam.

However, the curriculum now requires non-bumiputera students to learn Jawi writing (khat) progressively from Standard 4 to 6 and probably continue onwards to the secondary school level. There is a big concern that such a policy will ultimately lead towards the imposition of Jawi as part of Malay language in the SPM exam. To me, this is not an allegation nor baseless imagination. Look at the series of recent developments taking place in the country where even road signboards containing the Chinese and Malay writing have to be removed and replaced with Malay and Jawi writing. The promise to stop the continual operation of Lynas in the GE14 manifesto has been betrayed and the fake PhD credentials held by four of our ministers is not a big deal for our PM. My dearest comrades, can we still have faith in the "national" ideology and such partial political leadership?

The multiplying effect of the intrusion of Jawi writing curriculum in the SJK has instilled fear, suspicion and a crisis of trust amongst the minority ethnics in the trustworthiness of the present government to restore the role of education, i.e. to advance national aspirations, social sustainability and inclusiveness of all ethnics to enjoy the beauty of diversity that constitutes the resourcefulness and competitiveness of the country.

Policy formulation and policy implementation must be aligned with the bigger education goals and aspirations, i.e. promote inclusiveness, enabling upward social mobility for individual students, as well as ensuring social-economic sustainability and global competitiveness of a country.

I could not help wonder whether both the education minister and the prime minister are aware that the country already has two pretty good education blueprints put in place to pave the way for Malaysia to be a developed, progressive country as contained in the Vision 2020 and uplift Malaysia's education performance to the one-third bracket at the world level in the Pisa assessment. At the system level, the focus of the Malaysian education blueprint (for schools, 2013-2025) is to realise the noble objectives of equity, equality, quality and efficiency of each ringgit spent on every student regardless of race, social-economic class status and religious belief. At the student level, the relevancy of the reforms has to be reflected in producing students who are knowledgeable, bilingual (or multilingual), digitally-competent, critical in thinking, uphold morality and engaged with good leadership and a Malaysian identity based on respect and appreciation of diversity in ethnic, culture, language, religious beliefs with BM as national language and Islam as the official religion.

Just do a quick review of the education reforms that have taken place under the new Pakatan Harapan government towards this direction: the delay in granting due recognition of the UEC and the initial plan requiring SRK students to recognise, read and write (or imitate) Jawi with the association of five idiomatic expressions (at the initial stage). Are these relevant to the national aspirations? Or instead, are these the aspirations of politicians dealing with identity politics associated with the supremacy ideology of one race despite the caution of the potential penetration of political and Islamic influence on the minority ethnics’ students in SJK? Taking a deeper look, our minsters’ insistence on implementing a policy of "getting to know and appreciating khat" in the Malay language curriculum has already violated the spirit and principle contained in the country’s constitution and the Rukun Negara. It is essential that the spirit of respect and adherence be upheld by the education minister including our PM. This is the cornerstone to safeguard the respect and social l harmony among the various ethics in the country. Schools have to be safeguarded from political and religious influence be it Jawi (regarded as a language) or khat (as an art of Jawi writing). It is still closely associated with the glory of Islam and is a scripture closely related to Islam teaching and the Quran.

Let me reiterate that this article merely extends the concern and love of the writer for the country, its people and the respective ethnics groups in the country. It provides an insight into the fuss or the fear within the Chinese and minority ethnics over the policy to include Jawi in the SJK Malay language curriculum. The reason is simple - Jawi writing is somehow associated with Islam and the Malay civilisation.

Based on factual illustrations, the writer raises the concern whether the Malay language, being the national language, has fulfilled its role as a medium for national unity or rather has it been more associated with the ideology to homogenise Malays or Malaysians to be a conformity lot. This article points out the heavy cost that the country has paid for the supremacy ideology which is well reflected in the "alarming" deterioration of education standard in Maths, Science and English as well as in the workforce talent pool as indicated in the Pisa and Timss and the recent World Bank economist’s comments.

Being a researcher, education scholar as well as a school teacher and lecturer in teachers education institutes for the past decades, the writer ponders whether the country leaders can take pride in the inclusion of Jawi writing in the national language policy when it defies the noble spirit of respect and appreciation for diversity as enshrined in the constitution and the Rukun Negara. The writer cautions for the need for accountability by the country’s top leadership with respect to integrity and professionalism to advance education i.e. execute in line with the noble aspirations laid out in the Malaysian education blueprints instead of being driven by fanciful personal aspirations. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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